Why Did I Lose That Fish?

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Kyle Wilkinson

Nobody likes to lose a fish.

’Tis the season that I’m spending a lot of time on the water guiding, and so far it’s been a great year.  Whether it be the manageable flows through runoff, good customers, happy fish, good daily bug activity, good weather… everything has been shaping up very nicely and I can’t wait for these next few months with (hopefully) more of the same.

That said, one thing that never gets easier to swallow is when a customer loses a fish, particularly a big one you’ve been working hard to hook. I feel very confident in my ability to calmly coach people through fighting a fish, but the ultimate reality of this sport is that some of them are still just going to get away. This past week dealt me some of the tougher fishing conditions of the season and on top of it, we lost a couple of big fish. Not fun.

Just as most fly anglers seem to make many of the same mistakes when learning to cast a fly rod, the same is true when learning to fight fish. We’ve all heard the same old adages, “Don’t horse him in!”, “Let him run!”,  “Just take your time!” (I could go one) but what happens when you’re doing those things and the fish still comes off?

Here are three of the top reasons I see many fish lost that could have been landed.

  1. Don’t Touch The Reel Handle. This is easily the number one reason I see customers lose fish. It is always a goal of mine to get any fish of size on the reel when fighting it. That said, (and perhaps many of you can relate) having your hand on the reel at the time a fish decides to make a run is a recipe for disaster. When fighting a fish you must always anticipate another run is likely to happen, especially with the first attempt to net it.  I see many customers get so caught up in the moment with the fact that they’re bringing the fish closer to the net that –even with my verbal reminding – they seem to forget this. My suggestion if you’ve ever found yourself in the above situation is to practice taking 3-5 quick turns of the reel and then take your hand off. If the fish still seems willing to come closer, grab a few more quick turns and then again… hand off. Work on gaining line back in shorter, more controlled bursts and you’ll be in business!
  2. Use Your Rod Angles.  Have you ever watched someone fight a tarpon? What position is their rod typically in? Ever noticed that it’s angled way over to the side? Perhaps clear past the 3 or 9 o’clock position? The reason for this ‘down and dirty’ position (as it’s often called) is that the greater angle you have your rod at when fighting a fish, the more pressure you are applying. Positioning your rod off to one side or another will transfer more power to the butt of the rod, which as I believe most of us know, is where the power is. And while fighting a trout like a tarpon is far from what I’m getting at, keeping your rod anywhere beyond the 12 o’clock position is going to help you control the fish much more efficiently and effectively.  Another way to think about this is to angle the rod the opposite direction the fish is looking. If the fish is looking upriver, I’m going to have my rod tilted/angled slightly downriver and vice versa. I truly believe (and am welcome to criticism here) that you can wear a fish down mentally. This is always the better choice over wearing it down physically. Sure a fish can and will get tired throughout a fight but I’m confident that if every time a fish tries to go one direction it gets pulled the opposite it will end up in the net much quicker.
  3. Chase It Down. The degree to which my final point can be put into place is going to vary from river to river, however is still something that should always be in your game plan.  The majority of fish you hook are going to run down river, particularly the big ones. Sure, I’ve seen many big fish charge upriver after being hooked, but as soon as this initial run is over they almost always play the retreat game and head back down. When fishing any place that has the potential of producing big fish, planning for this downstream chase should be something you’re constantly prepared to do from the instant it’s hooked, but it doesn’t stop at simply following it downstream. Your goal should always be to get even with the fish. Staying even with a large fish during the fight (and then incorporating tip 1 and 2) is guaranteed to help you start putting more of those big fish in the net!
Kyle Wilkinson
Gink & Gasoline
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11 thoughts on “Why Did I Lose That Fish?

  1. I’ve found this to be true. Any rod position when fighting a fish should be to the side, never 12 o’clock. The 12 o’clock position adds extra hook pulling power, just due to its position. You never know where the fish is hooked, and how well. My number one rule when I hook a large fish, 9 o’clock or 3 o’clock, never 12 noon. I’ve seen the hook pull too often. Rule number two for me, loosen the drag, never tighten, and know where it is when you start. I’m just a dummy, but that’s what I believe in.

  2. I think fly-fishing videos and that dang Orvis logo are mostly responsible for #3 (where is #2?). Tons of videos where you see the guy with his rod straight up and his arm fully extended skyward. It’s the least efficient method of applying pressure on a fish, and most importantly, it dramatically increases the chances of you breaking your rod at a critical moment, especially on a large fish.

  3. My #1 rule is when you have brought the fish in to where you can first see it, take your hand off the reel! You must hand line it from there. Lightly pinch the line to the rod with your finger while pulling it in and give the fish back all the line it wants easily. The hook is already set and the only way your loosing the fish is a line snap. All it takes is one head shake to loose a big fish in close. It will run 2-3 times after seeing you with the net but eventually will give up.

    There is nothing more painful than seeing someone get lucky enough to get a great fish and loose it trying to reel it all the way to the net.

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  5. Good points, although I’m not sure I agree with point #3… When a fish runs downstream, if you are chasing the fish then essentially you are giving the fish a break and not really gaining anything in the fight… If you stay put and stand your ground and keep the rod low and toward the bank then more often then not you can get the fish to turn and start coming back upstream. Some people even feed slack into their line when fish do this, it tends to create a massive belly in the line which ends up pulling on the fish’s mouth from the rear, when the fish feels this it wants pull against the hook which means heading back upstream. Just a thought, and personal opinion. I like to stay put and hammer on the brakes.

  6. I’d just add that physically backing up to move a fish out of the main current seems to work better than “pulling” at him with more rod pressure.

  7. Thanks for great article. Rod angle is always something I need to remind myself and others about. How many times have I banged a knee or gotten wet desperately trying to get downstream and “get even” as you call it? Ha! I love that…I’m gonna get even with this trout…great stuff.

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